By Henry James
I saw her only four times, but I remember them vividly; she made an impression upon me. I thought her very pretty and very interesting,—a charming specimen of a type. I am very sorry to hear of her death; and yet, when I think of it, why should I be sorry? The last time I saw her she was certainly not—But I will describe all our meetings in order.
The first one took place in the country, at a little tea-party, one snowy night. It must have been some seventeen years ago. My friend Latouche, going to spend Christmas with his mother, had persuaded me to go with him, and the good lady had given in our honor the entertainment of which I speak. To me it was really entertaining; I had never been in the depths of New England at that season. It had been snowing all day, and the drifts were knee-high. I wondered how the ladies had made their way to the house; but I perceived that at Grimwinter a conversazione offering the attraction of two gentlemen from New York was felt to be worth an effort.
Mrs. Latouche, in the course of the evening, asked me if I "did n't want to" show the photographs to some of the young ladies. The photographs were in a couple of great portfolios, and had been brought home by her son, who, like myself, was lately returned from Europe. I looked round and was struck with the fact that most of the young ladies were provided with an object of interest more absorbing than the most vivid sun-picture. But there was a person standing alone near the mantelshelf, and looking round the room with a small gentle smile which seemed at odds, somehow, with her isolation. I looked at her a moment, and then said, "I should like to show them to that young lady."
"Oh, yes," said Mrs. Latouche, "she is just the person. She doesn't care for flirting; I will speak to her."
I rejoined that if she did not care for flirting, she was, perhaps, not just the person; but Mrs. Latouche had already gone to propose the photographs to her.
"She's delighted," she said, coming back. "She is just the person, so quiet and so bright." And then she told me the young lady was, by name, Miss Caroline Spencer, and with this she introduced me.
Miss Caroline Spencer was not exactly a beauty, but she was a charming little figure. She must have been close upon thirty, but she was made almost like a little girl, and she had the complexion of a child. She had a very pretty head, and her hair was arranged as nearly as possible like the hair of a Greek bust, though indeed it was to be doubted if she had ever seen a Greek bust. She was "artistic," I suspected, so far as Grimwinter allowed such tendencies. She had a soft, surprised eye, and thin lips, with very pretty teeth. Round her neck she wore what ladies call, I believe, a "ruche," fastened with a very small pin in pink coral, and in her hand she carried a fan made of plaited straw and adorned with pink ribbon. She wore a scanty black silk dress. She spoke with a kind of soft precision, showing her white teeth between her narrow but tender-looking lips, and she seemed extremely pleased, even a little fluttered, at the prospect of my demonstrations. These went forward very smoothly, after I had moved the portfolios out of their corner and placed a couple of chairs near a lamp. The photographs were usually things I knew,—large views of Switzerland, Italy, and Spain, landscapes, copies of famous buildings, pictures, and statues. I said what I could about them, and my companion, looking at them as I held them up, sat perfectly still, with her straw fan raised to her underlip. Occasionally, as I laid one of the pictures down, she said very softly, "Have you seen that place?" I usually answered that I had seen it several times (I had been a great traveller), and then I felt that she looked at me askance for a moment with her pretty eyes. I had asked her at the outset whether she had been to Europe; to this she answered, "No, no, no," in a little quick, confidential whisper. But after that, though she never took her eyes off the pictures, she said so little that I was afraid she was bored. Accordingly, after we had finished one portfolio, I offered, if she desired it, to desist. I felt that she was not bored, but her reticence puzzled me, and I wished to make her speak. I turned round to look at her, and saw that there was a faint flush in each of her cheeks. She was waving her little fan to and fro. Instead of looking at me she fixed her eyes upon the other portfolio, which was leaning against the table.
"Won't you show me that?" she asked, with a little tremor in her voice. I could almost have believed she was agitated.
"With pleasure," I answered, "if you are not tired."
"No, I am not tired," she affirmed. "I like it—I love it."
And as I took up the other portfolio she laid her hand upon it, rubbing it softly.
"And have you been here too?" she asked.
On my opening the portfolio it appeared that I had been there. One of the first photographs was a large view of the Castle of Chillon, on the Lake of Geneva.
"Here," I said, "I have been many a time. Is it not beautiful?" And I pointed to the perfect reflection of the rugged rocks and pointed towers in the clear still water. She did not say, "Oh, enchanting!" and push it away to see the next picture. She looked awhile, and then she asked if it was not where Bonnivard, about whom Byron wrote, was confined. I assented, and tried to quote some of Byron's verses, but in this attempt I succeeded imperfectly.
She fanned herself a moment, and then repeated the lines correctly, in a soft, flat, and yet agreeable voice. By the time she had finished she was blushing. I complimented her and told her she was perfectly equipped for visiting Switzerland and Italy. She looked at me askance again, to see whether I was serious, and I added, that if she wished to recognize Byron's descriptions she must go abroad speedily; Europe was getting sadly dis-Byronized.
"How soon must I go?" she asked.
"Oh, I will give you ten years."
"I think I can go within ten years," she answered very soberly.
"Well," I said, "you will enjoy it immensely; you will find it very charming." And just then I came upon a photograph of some nook in a foreign city which I had been very fond of, and which recalled tender memories. I discoursed (as I suppose) with a certain eloquence; my companion sat listening, breathless.
"Have you been very long in foreign lands?" she asked, some time after I had ceased.
"Many years," I said.
"And have you travelled everywhere?"
"I have travelled a great deal. I am very fond of it; and, happily, I have been able."
Again she gave me her sidelong gaze. "And do you know the foreign languages?"
"After a fashion."
"Is it hard to speak them?"
"I don't believe you would find it hard," I gallantly responded.
"Oh, I shouldn't want to speak; I should only want to listen," she said. Then, after a pause, she added, "They say the French theatre is so beautiful."
"It is the best in the world."
"Did you go there very often?"
"When I was first in Paris I went every night."
"Every night!" And she opened her clear eyes very wide. "That to me is:—" and she hesitated a moment—"is very wonderful." A few minutes later she asked, "Which country do you prefer?"
"There is one country I prefer to all others. I think you would do the same."
She looked at me a moment, and then she said softly, "Italy?"
"Italy," I answered softly, too; and for a moment we looked at each other. She looked as pretty as if, instead of showing her photographs, I had been making love to her. To increase the analogy, she glanced away, blushing. There was a silence, which she broke at last by saying,—
"That is the place which, in particular, I thought of going to."
"Oh, that's the place, that's the place!" I said.
She looked at two or three photographs in silence. "They say it is not so dear."
"As some other countries? Yes, that is not the least of its charms."
"But it is all very dear, is it not?"
"Europe, you mean?"
"Going there and travelling. That has been the trouble. I have very little money. I give lessons," said Miss Spencer.
"Of course one must have money," I said, "but one can manage with a moderate amount."
"I think I should manage. I have laid something by, and I am always adding a little to it. It's all for that." She paused a moment, and then went on with a kind of suppressed eagerness, as if telling me the story were a rare, but a possibly impure satisfaction, "But it has not been only the money; it has been everything. Everything has been against it I have waited and waited. It has been a mere castle in the air. I am almost afraid to talk about it. Two or three times it has been a little nearer, and then I have talked about it and it has melted away. I have talked about it too much," she said hypocritically; for I saw that such talking was now a small tremulous ecstasy. "There is a lady who is a great friend of mine; she does n't want to go; I always talk to her about it. I tire her dreadfully. She told me once she did n't know what would become of me. I should go crazy if I did not go to Europe, and I should certainly go crazy if I did."
"Well," I said, "you have not gone yet, and nevertheless you are not crazy."
She looked at me a moment, and said, "I am not so sure. I don't think of anything else. I am always thinking of it. It prevents me from thinking of things that are nearer home, things that I ought to attend to. That is a kind of craziness."
"The cure for it is to go," I said.
"I have a faith that I shall go. I have a cousin in Europe!" she announced.
We turned over some more photographs, and I asked her if she had always lived at Grimwinter.
"Oh, no, sir," said Miss Spencer. "I have spent twenty-three months in Boston."
I answered, jocosely, that in that case foreign lands would probably prove a disappointment to her; but I quite failed to alarm her.
"I know more about them than you might think," she said, with her shy, neat little smile. "I mean by reading; I have read a great deal I have not only read Byron; I have read histories and guidebooks. I know I shall like it."
"I understand your case," I rejoined. "You have the native American passion,—the passion for the picturesque. With us, I think it is primordial,—antecedent to experience. Experience comes and only shows us something we have dreamt of."
"I think that is very true," said Caroline Spencer. "I have dreamt of everything; I shall know it all!"
"I am afraid you have wasted a great deal of time."
"Oh, yes, that has been my great wickedness."
The people about us had begun to scatter; they were taking their leave. She got up and put out her hand to me, timidly, but with a peculiar brightness in her eyes.
"I am going back there," I said, as I shook hands with her. "I shall look out for you."
"I will tell you," she answered, "if I am disappointed."
And she went away, looking delicately agitated, and moving her little straw fan.
A few months after this I returned to Europe, and some three years elapsed. I had been living in Paris, and, toward the end of October, I went from that city to Havre, to meet my sister and her husband, who had written me that they were about to arrive there. On reaching Havre I found that the steamer was already in; I was nearly two hours late. I repaired directly to the hotel, where my relatives were already established. My sister had gone to bed, exhausted and disabled by her voyage; she was a sadly incompetent sailor, and her sufferings on this occasion had been extreme. She wished, for the moment, for undisturbed rest, and was unable to see me more than five minutes; so it was agreed that we should remain at Havre until the next day. My brother-in-law, who was anxious about his wife, was unwilling to leave her room; but she insisted upon his going out with me to take a walk and recover his landlegs. The early autumn day was warm and charming, and our stroll through the bright-colored, busy streets of the old French seaport was sufficiently entertaining. We walked along the sunny, noisy quays, and then turned into a wide, pleasant street, which lay half in sun and half in shade—a French provincial street, that looked like an old water-color drawing: tall, gray, steep-roofed, red-gabled, many-storied houses; green shutters on windows and old scroll-work above them; flower-pots in balconies, and white-capped women in doorways. We walked in the shade; all this stretched away on the sunny side of the street and made a picture. We looked at it as we passed along; then, suddenly, my brother-in-law stopped, pressing my arm and staring. I followed his gaze and saw that we had paused just before coming to a cafe, where, under an awning, several tables and chairs were disposed upon the pavement The windows were open behind; half a dozen plants in tubs were ranged beside the door; the pavement was besprinkled with clean bran. It was a nice little, quiet, old-fashioned cafe; inside, in the comparative dusk, I saw a stout, handsome woman, with pink ribbons in her cap, perched up with a mirror behind her back, smiling at some one who was out of sight. All this, however, I perceived afterwards; what I first observed was a lady sitting alone, outside, at one of the little marble-topped tables. My brother-in-law had stopped to look at her. There was something on the little table, but she was leaning back quietly, with her hands folded, looking down the street, away from us. I saw her only in something less than profile; nevertheless, I instantly felt that I had seen her before.
"The little lady of the steamer!" exclaimed my brother-in-law.
"Was she on your steamer?" I asked.
"From morning till night She was never sick. She used to sit perpetually at the side of the vessel with her hands crossed that way, looking at the eastward horizon."
"Are you going to speak to her?"
"I don't know her. I never made acquaintance with her. I was too seedy. But I used to watch her and—I don't know why—to be interested in her. She's a dear little Yankee woman. I have an idea she is a schoolmistress taking a holiday, for which her scholars have made up a purse."
She turned her face a little more into profile, looking at the steep gray house-fronts opposite to her. Then I said, "I shall speak to her myself."
"I would n't; she is very shy," said my brother-in-law.
"My dear fellow, I know her. I once showed her photographs at a tea-party."
And I went up to her. She turned and looked at me, and I saw she was in fact Miss Caroline Spencer. But she was not so quick to recognize me; she looked startled. I pushed a chair to the table and sat down.
"Well," I said, "I hope you are not disappointed!"
She stared, blushing a little; then she gave a small jump which betrayed recognition.
"It was you who showed me the photographs, at Grimwinter!"
"Yes, it was I. This happens very charmingly, for I feel as if it were for me to give you a formal reception here, an official welcome. I talked to you so much about Europe."
"You did n't say too much. I am so happy!" she softly exclaimed.
Very happy she looked. There was no sign of her being older; she was as gravely, decently, demurely pretty as before. If she had seemed before a thin-stemmed, mild-hued flower of Puritanism, it may be imagined whether in her present situation this delicate bloom was less apparent. Beside her an old gentleman was drinking absinthe; behind her the dame de comptoir in the pink ribbons was calling "Alcibiade! Alcibiade!" to the long-aproned waiter. I explained to Miss Spencer that my companion had lately been her shipmate, and my brother-in-law came up and was introduced to her. But she looked at him as if she had never seen him before, and I remembered that he had told me that her eyes were always fixed upon the eastward horizon. She had evidently not noticed him, and, still timidly smiling, she made no attempt whatever to pretend that she had. I stayed with her at the cafe door, and he went back to the hotel and to his wife. I said to Miss Spencer that this meeting of ours in the first hour of her landing was really very strange, but that I was delighted to be there and receive her first impressions.
"Oh, I can't tell you," she said; "I feel as if I were in a dream. I have been sitting here for an hour, and I don't want to move. Everything is so picturesque. I don't know whether the coffee has intoxicated me; it 's so delicious."
"Really," said I, "if you are so pleased with this poor prosaic Havre, you will have no admiration left for better things. Don't spend your admiration all the first day; remember it's your intellectual letter of credit. Remember all the beautiful places and things that are waiting for you; remember that lovely Italy!"
"I 'm not afraid of running short," she said gayly, still looking at the opposite houses. "I could sit here all day, saying to myself that here I am at last. It's so dark and old and different."
"By the way," I inquired, "how come you to be sitting here? Have you not gone to one of the inns?" For I was half amused, half alarmed, at the good conscience with which this delicately pretty woman had stationed herself in conspicuous isolation on the edge of the trottoir.
"My cousin brought me here," she answered. "You know I told you I had a cousin in Europe. He met me at the steamer this morning."
"It was hardly worth his while to meet you if he was to desert you so soon."
"Oh, he has only left me for half an hour," said Miss Spencer. "He has gone to get my money."
"Where is your money?"
She gave a little laugh. "It makes me feel very fine to tell you! It is in some circular notes."
"And where are your circular notes?"
"In my cousin's pocket."
This statement was very serenely uttered, but—I can hardly say why—it gave me a sensible chill At the moment I should have been utterly unable to give the reason of this sensation, for I knew nothing of Miss Spencer's cousin. Since he was her cousin, the presumption was in his favor. But I felt suddenly uncomfortable at the thought that, half an hour after her landing, her scanty funds should have passed into his hands.
"Is he to travel with you?" I asked.
"Only as far as Paris. He is an art-student, in Paris. I wrote to him that I was coming, but I never expected him to come off to the ship. I supposed he would only just meet me at the train in Paris. It is very kind of him. But he is very kind, and very bright."
I instantly became conscious of an extreme curiosity to see this bright cousin who was an art-student.
"He is gone to the banker's?" I asked.
"Yes, to the banker's. He took me to a hotel, such a queer, quaint, delicious little place, with a court in the middle, and a gallery all round, and a lovely landlady, in such a beautifully fluted cap, and such a perfectly fitting dress! After a while we came out to walk to the banker's, for I haven't got any French money. But I was very dizzy from the motion of the vessel, and I thought I had better sit down. He found this place for me here, and he went off to the banker's himself. I am to wait here till he comes back."
It may seem very fantastic, but it passed through my mind that he would never come back. I settled myself in my chair beside Miss Spencer and determined to await the event. She was extremely observant; there was something touching in it. She noticed everything that the movement of the street brought before us,—peculiarities of costume, the shapes of vehicles, the big Norman horses, the fat priests, the shaven poodles. We talked of these things, and there was something charming in her freshness of perception and the way her book-nourished fancy recognized and welcomed everything.
"And when your cousin comes back, what are you going to do?" I asked.
She hesitated a moment. "We don't quite know."
"When do you go to Paris? If you go by the four o'clock train, I may have the pleasure of making the journey with you."
"I don't think we shall do that. My cousin thinks I had better stay here a few days."
"Oh!" said I; and for five minutes said nothing more. I was wondering what her cousin was, in vulgar parlance, "up to." I looked up and down the street, but saw nothing that looked like a bright American art-student. At last I took the liberty of observing that Havre was hardly a place to choose as one of the aesthetic stations of a European tour. It was a place of convenience, nothing more; a place of transit, through which transit should be rapid. I recommended her to go to Paris by the afternoon train, and meanwhile to amuse herself by driving to the ancient fortress at the mouth of the harbor,—that picturesque circular structure which bore the name of Francis the First, and looked like a small castle of St. Angelo. (It has lately been demolished.)
She listened with much interest; then for a moment she looked grave.
"My cousin told me that when he returned he should have something particular to say to me, and that we could do nothing or decide nothing until I should have heard it. But I will make him tell me quickly, and then we will go to the ancient fortress. There is no hurry to get to Paris; there is plenty of time."
She smiled with her softly severe little lips as she spoke those last words. But I, looking at her with a purpose, saw just a tiny gleam of apprehension in her eye.
"Don't tell me," I said, "that this wretched man is going to give you bad news!"
"I suspect it is a little bad, but I don't believe it is very bad. At any rate, I must listen to it."
I looked at her again an instant. "You did n't come to Europe to listen," I said. "You came to see!" But now I was sure her cousin would come back; since he had something disagreeable to say to her, he certainly would turn up. We sat a while longer, and I asked her about her plans of travel She had them on her fingers' ends, and she told over the names with a kind of solemn distinctness: from Paris to Dijon and to Avignon, from Avignon to Marseilles and the Cornice road; thence to Genoa, to Spezia, to Pisa, to Florence, to Home. It apparently had never occurred to her that there could be the least incommodity in her travelling alone; and since she was unprovided with a companion I of course scrupulously abstained from disturbing her sense of security. At last her cousin came back. I saw him turn towards us out of a side street, and from the moment my eyes rested upon him I felt that this was the bright American art-student. He wore a slouch hat and a rusty black velvet jacket, such as I had often encountered in the Rue Bonaparte. His shirt-collar revealed the elongation of a throat which, at a distance, was not strikingly statuesque. He was tall and lean; he had red hair and freckles. So much I had time to observe while he approached the cafe, staring at me with natural surprise from under his umbrageous coiffure. When he came up to us I immediately introduced myself to him as an old acquaintance of Miss Spencer. He looked at me hard with a pair of little red eyes, then he made me a solemn bow in the French fashion, with his sombrero.
"You were not on the ship?" he said.
"No, I was not on the ship. I have been in Europe these three years."
He bowed once more, solemnly, and motioned me to be seated again. I sat down, but it was only for the purpose of observing him an instant; I saw it was time I should return to my sister. Miss Spencer's cousin was a queer fellow. Nature had not shaped him for a Raphaelesque or Byronic attire, and his velvet doublet and naked neck were not in harmony with his facial attributes. His hair was cropped close to his head; his ears were large and ill-adjusted to the same. He had a lackadaisical carriage and a sentimental droop which were peculiarly at variance with his keen, strange-colored eyes. Perhaps I was prejudiced, but I thought his eyes treacherous. He said nothing for some time; he leaned his hands on his cane and looked up and down the street Then at last, slowly lifting his cane and pointing with it, "That's a very nice bit," he remarked, softly. He had his head on one side, and his little eyes were half closed. I followed the direction of his stick; the object it indicated was a red cloth hung out of an old window. "Nice bit of color," he continued; and without moving his head he transferred his half-closed gaze to me. "Composes well," he pursued. "Make a nice thing." He spoke in a hard vulgar voice.
"I see you have a great deal of eye," I replied. "Your cousin tells me you are studying art." He looked at me in the same way without answering, and I went on with deliberate urbanity, "I suppose you are at the studio of one of those great men."
Still he looked at me, and then he said softly, "Gerome."
"Do you like it?" I asked.
"Do you understand French?" he said.
"Some kinds," I answered.
He kept his little eyes on me; then he said, "J'adore la peinture!"
"Oh, I understand that kind!" I rejoined. Miss Spencer laid her hand upon her cousin's arm with a little pleased and fluttered movement; it was delightful to be among people who were on such easy terms with foreign tongues. I got up to take leave, and asked Miss Spencer where, in Paris, I might have the honor of waiting upon her. To what hotel would she go?
She turned to her cousin inquiringly, and he honored me again with his little languid leer. "Do you know the Hotel des Princes?"
"I know where it is."
"I shall take her there."
"I congratulate you," I said to Caroline Spencer. "I believe it is the best inn in the world; and in case I should still have a moment to call upon you here, where are you lodged?"
"Oh, it's such a pretty name," said Miss Spencer gleefully. "A la Belle Normande."
As I left them her cousin gave me a great flourish with his picturesque hat.
My sister, as it proved, was not sufficiently restored to leave Havre by the afternoon train; so that, as the autumn dusk began to fall, I found myself at liberty to call at the sign of the Fair Norman. I must confess that I had spent much of the interval in wondering what the disagreeable thing was that my charming friend's disagreeable cousin had been telling her. The "Belle Normande" was a modest inn in a shady bystreet, where it gave me satisfaction to think Miss Spencer must have encountered local color in abundance. There was a crooked little court, where much of the hospitality of the house was carried on; there was a staircase climbing to bedrooms on the outer side of the wall; there was a small trickling fountain with a stucco statuette in the midst of it; there was a little boy in a white cap and apron cleaning copper vessels at a conspicuous kitchen door; there was a chattering landlady, neatly laced, arranging apricots and grapes into an artistic pyramid upon a pink plate. I looked about, and on a green bench outside of an open door labelled Salle a Manger, I perceived Caroline Spencer. No sooner had I looked at her than I saw that something had happened since the morning. She was leaning back on her bench, her hands were clasped in her lap, and her eyes were fixed upon the landlady, at the other side of the court, manipulating her apricots.
But I saw she was not thinking of apricots. She was staring absently, thoughtfully; as I came near her I perceived that she had been crying. I sat down on the bench beside her before she saw me; then, when she had done so, she simply turned round, without surprise, and rested her sad eyes upon me. Something very bad indeed had happened; she was completely changed.
I immediately charged her with it. "Your cousin has been giving you bad news; you are in great distress."
For a moment she said nothing, and I supposed that she was afraid to speak, lest her tears should come back. But presently I perceived that in the short time that had elapsed since my leaving her in the morning she had shed them all, and that she was now softly stoical, intensely composed.
"My poor cousin is in distress," she said at last. "His news was bad." Then, after a brief hesitation, "He was in terrible want of money."
"In want of yours, you mean?"
"Of any that he could get—honestly. Mine was the only money."
"And he has taken yours?"
She hesitated again a moment, but her glance, meanwhile, was pleading. "I gave him what I had."
I have always remembered the accent of those words as the most angelic bit of human utterance I had ever listened to; but then, almost with a sense of personal outrage, I jumped up. "Good heavens!" I said, "do you call that getting, it honestly?"
I had gone too far; she blushed deeply. "We will not speak of it," she said.
"We must speak of it," I answered, sitting down again. "I am your friend; it seems to me you need one. What is the matter with your cousin?"
"He is in debt."
"No doubt! But what is the special fitness of your paying his debts?"
"He has told me all his story; I am very sorry for him."
"So am I! But I hope he will give you back your money."
"Certainly he will; as soon as he can."
"When will that be?"
"When he has finished his great picture."
"My dear young lady, confound his great picture! Where is this desperate cousin?"
She certainly hesitated now. Then,—"At his dinner," she answered.
I turned about and looked through the open door into the salle a manger. There, alone at the end of a long table, I perceived the object of Miss Spencer's compassion, the bright young art-student. He was dining too attentively to notice me at first; but in the act of setting down a well-emptied wineglass he caught sight of my observant attitude. He paused in his repast, and, with his head on one side and his meagre jaws slowly moving, fixedly returned my gaze. Then the landlady came lightly brushing by with her pyramid of apricots.
"And that nice little plate of fruit is for him?" I exclaimed.
Miss Spencer glanced at it tenderly. "They do that so prettily!" she murmured.
I felt helpless and irritated. "Come now, really," I said; "do you approve of that long strong fellow accepting your funds?" She looked away from me; I was evidently giving her pain. The case was hopeless; the long strong fellow had "interested" her.
"Excuse me if I speak of him so unceremoniously," I said. "But you are really too generous, and he is not quite delicate enough. He made his debts himself; he ought to pay them himself."
"He has been foolish," she answered; "I know that He has told me everything. We had a long talk this morning; the poor fellow threw himself upon my charity. He has signed notes to a large amount."
"The more fool he!"
"He is in extreme distress; and it is not only himself. It is his poor wife."
"Ah, he has a poor wife?"
"I didn't know it; but he confessed everything. He married two years since, secretly."
Caroline Spencer glanced about her, as if she feared listeners. Then softly, in a little impressive tone,—"She was a countess!"
"Are you very sure of that?"
"She has written me a most beautiful letter."
"Asking you for money, eh?"
"Asking me for confidence and sympathy," said Miss Spencer. "She has been disinherited by her father. My cousin told me the story, and she tells it in her own way, in the letter. It is like an old romance. Her father opposed the marriage, and when he discovered that she had secretly disobeyed him he cruelly cast her off. It is really most romantic. They are the oldest family in Provence."
I looked and listened in wonder. It really seemed that the poor woman was enjoying the "romance" of having a discarded countess-cousin, out of Provence, so deeply as almost to lose the sense of what the forfeiture of her money meant for her.
"My dear young lady," I said, "you don't want to be ruined for picturesqueness' sake?"
"I shall not be ruined. I shall come back before long to stay with them. The Countess insists upon that."
"Come back! You are going home, then?"
She sat for a moment with her eyes lowered, then with an heroic suppression of a faint tremor of the voice,—"I have no money for travelling!" she answered.
"You gave it all up?"
"I have kept enough to take me home."
I gave an angry groan; and at this juncture Miss Spencer's cousin, the fortunate possessor of her sacred savings and of the hand of the Provencal countess, emerged from the little dining-room. He stood on the threshold for an instant, removing the stone from a plump apricot which he had brought away from the table; then he put the apricot into his mouth, and while he let it sojourn there, gratefully, stood looking at us, with his long legs apart and his hands dropped into the pockets of his velvet jacket. My companion got up, giving him a thin glance which I caught in its passage, and which expressed a strange commixture of resignation and fascination,—a sort of perverted exaltation. Ugly, vulgar, pretentious, dishonest, as I thought the creature, he had appealed successfully to her eager and tender imagination. I was deeply disgusted, but I had no warrant to interfere, and at any rate I felt that it would be vain.
The young man waved his hand with a pictorial gesture. "Nice old court," he observed. "Nice mellow old place. Good tone in that brick. Nice crooked old staircase."
Decidedly, I could n't stand it; without responding I gave my hand to Caroline Spencer. She looked at me an instant with her little white face and expanded eyes, and as she showed her pretty teeth I suppose she meant to smile.
"Don't be sorry for me," she said, "I am very sure I shall see something of this dear old Europe yet."
I told her that I would not bid her goodby; I should find a moment to come back the next morning. Her cousin, who had put on his sombrero again, flourished it off at me by way of a bow, upon which I took my departure.
The next morning I came back to the inn, where I met in the court the landlady, more loosely laced than in the evening. On my asking for Miss Spencer,—"Partie, monsieu," said the hostess. "She went away last night at ten o 'clock, with her—her—not her husband, eh?—in fine, her monsieur. They went down to the American ship." I turned away; the poor girl had been about thirteen hours in Europe.
I myself, more fortunate, was there some five years longer. During this period I lost my friend Latouche, who died of a malarious fever during a tour in the Levant. One of the first things I did on my return was to go up to Grimwinter to pay a consolatory visit to his poor mother. I found her in deep affliction, and I sat with her the whole of the morning that followed my arrival (I had come in late at night), listening to her tearful descant and singing the praises of my friend. We talked of nothing else, and our conversation terminated only with the arrival of a quick little woman who drove herself up to the door in a "carryall," and whom I saw toss the reins upon the horse's back with the briskness of a startled sleeper throwing back the bed-clothes. She jumped out of the carryall and she jumped into the room. She proved to be the minister's wife and the great town-gossip, and she had evidently, in the latter capacity, a choice morsel to communicate. I was as sure of this as I was that poor Mrs. Latouche was not absolutely too bereaved to listen to her. It seemed to me discreet to retire; I said I believed I would go and take a walk before dinner.
"And, by the way," I added, "if you will tell me where my old friend Miss Spencer lives, I will walk to her house."
The minister's wife immediately responded. Miss Spencer lived in the fourth house beyond the "Baptist church; the Baptist church was the one on the right, with that queer green thing over the door; they called it a portico, but it looked more like an old-fashioned bedstead.
"Yes, do go and see poor Caroline," said Mrs. Latouche. "It will refresh her to see a strange face."
"I should think she had had enough of strange faces!" cried the minister's wife.
"I mean, to see a visitor," said Mrs. Latouche, amending her phrase.
"I should think she had had enough of visitors!" her companion rejoined. "But you don't mean to stay ten years," she added, glancing at me.
"Has she a visitor of that sort?" I inquired, perplexed.
"You will see the sort!" said the minister's wife. "She's easily seen; she generally sits in the front yard. Only take care what you say to her, and be very sure you are polite."
"Ah, she is so sensitive?"
The minister's wife jumped up and dropped me a curtsey, a most ironical curtsey.
"That's what she is, if you please. She's a countess!"
And pronouncing this word with the most scathing accent, the little woman seemed fairly to laugh in the Countess's face. I stood a moment, staring, wondering, remembering.
"Oh, I shall be very polite!" I cried; and grasping my hat and stick, I went on my way.
I found Miss Spencer's residence without difficulty. The Baptist church was easily identified, and the small dwelling near it, of a rusty white, with a large central chimney-stack and a Virginia creeper, seemed naturally and properly the abode of a frugal old maid with a taste for the picturesque. As I approached I slackened my pace, for I had heard that some one was always sitting in the front yard, and I wished to reconnoitre. I looked cautiously over the low white fence which separated the small garden-space from the unpaved street; but I descried nothing in the shape of a countess. A small straight path led up to the crooked doorstep, and on either side of it was a little grass-plot, fringed with currant-bushes. In the middle of the grass, on either side, was a large quince-tree, full of antiquity and contortions, and beneath one of the quince-trees were placed a small table and a couple of chairs. On the table lay a piece of unfinished embroidery and two or three books in bright-colored paper covers. I went in at the gate and paused halfway along the path, scanning the place for some farther token of its occupant, before whom—I could hardly have said why—I hesitated abruptly to present myself. Then I saw that the poor little house was very shabby. I felt a sudden doubt of my right to intrude; for curiosity had been my motive, and curiosity here seemed singularly indelicate. While I hesitated, a figure appeared in the open doorway and stood there looking at me. I immediately recognized Caroline Spencer, but she looked at me as if she had never seen me before. Gently, but gravely and timidly, I advanced to the doorstep, and then I said, with an attempt at friendly badinage,—
"I waited for you over there to come back, but you never came."
"Waited where, sir?" she asked softly, and her light-colored eyes expanded more than before.
She was much older; she looked tired and wasted.
"Well," I said, "I waited at Havre."
She stared; then she recognized me. She smiled and blushed and clasped her two hands together. "I remember you now," she said. "I remember that day." But she stood there, neither coming out nor asking me to come in. She was embarrassed.
I, too, felt a little awkward. I poked my stick into the path. "I kept looking out for you, year after year," I said.
"You mean in Europe?" murmured Miss Spencer.
"In Europe, of course! Here, apparently, you are easy enough to find."
She leaned her hand against the unpainted doorpost, and her head fell a little to one side. She looked at me for a moment without speaking, and I thought I recognized the expression that one sees in women's eyes when tears are rising. Suddenly she stepped out upon the cracked slab of stone before the threshold and closed the door behind her. Then she began to smile intently, and I saw that her teeth were as pretty as ever. But there had been tears too.
"Have you been there ever since?" she asked, almost in a whisper.
"Until three weeks ago. And you—you never came back?"
Still looking at me with her fixed smile, she put her hand behind her and opened the door again. "I am not very polite," she said. "Won't you come in?"
"I am afraid I incommode you."
"Oh, no!" she answered, smiling more than ever. And she pushed back the door, with a sign that I should enter.
I went in, following her. She led the way to a small room on the left of the narrow hall, which I supposed to be her parlor, though it was at the back of the house, and we passed the closed door of another apartment which apparently enjoyed a view of the quince-trees. This one looked out upon a small woodshed and two clucking hens. But I thought it very pretty, until I saw that its elegance was of the most frugal kind; after which, presently, I thought it prettier still, for I had never seen faded chintz and old mezzotint engravings, framed in varnished autumn leaves, disposed in so graceful a fashion. Miss Spencer sat down on a very small portion of the sofa, with her hands tightly clasped in her lap. She looked ten years older, and it would have souuded very perverse now to speak of her as pretty. But I thought her so; or at least I thought her touching. She was peculiarly agitated. I tried to appear not to notice it; but suddenly, in the most inconsequent fashion,—it was an irresistible memory of our little friendship at Havre,—I said to her, "I do incommode you. You are distressed."
She raised her two hands to her face, and for a moment kept it buried in them. Then, taking them away,—"It's because you remind me—" she said.
"I remind you, you mean, of that miserable day at Havre?"
She shook her head. "It was not miserable. It was delightful."
"I never was so shocked as when, on going back to your inn the next morning, I found you had set sail again."
She was silent a moment; and then she said, "Please let us not speak of that."
"Did you come straight back here?" I asked.
"I was back here just thirty days after I had gone away."
"And here you have remained ever since?"
"Oh, yes!" she said gently.
"When are you going to Europe again?"
This question seemed brutal; but there was something that irritated me in the softness of her resignation, and I wished to extort from her some expression of impatience.
She fixed her eyes for a moment upon a small sunspot on the carpet; then she got up and lowered the window-blind a little, to obliterate it. Presently, in the same mild voice, answering my question, she said, "Never!"
"I hope your cousin repaid you your money."
"I don't care for it now," she said, looking away from me.
"You don't care for your money?"
"For going to Europe."
"Do you mean that you would not go if you could?"
"I can't—I can't," said Caroline Spencer. "It is all over; I never think of it."
"He never repaid you, then!" I exclaimed.
"Please—please," she began.
But she stopped; she was looking toward the door. There had been a rustling aud a sound of steps in the hall.
I also looked toward the door, which was open, and now admitted another person, a lady, who paused just within the threshold. Behind her came a young man. The lady looked at me with a good deal of fixedness, long enough for my glance to receive a vivid impression of herself. Then she turned to Caroline Spencer, and, with a smile and a strong foreign accent,—
"Excuse my interruption!" she said. "I knew not you had company, the gentleman came in so quietly."
With this she directed her eyes toward me again.
She was very strange; yet my first feeling was that I had seen her before. Then I perceived that I had only seen ladies who were very much like her. But I had seen them very far away from Grimwinter, and it was an odd sensation to be seeing her here. Whither was it the sight of her seemed to transport me? To some dusky landing before a shabby Parisian quatrieme,—to an open door revealing a greasy antechamber, and to Madame leaning over the banisters, while she holds a faded dressing-gown together and bawls down to the portress to bring up her coffee. Miss Spencer's visitor was a very large woman, of middle age, with a plump, dead-white face, and hair drawn back a la chinoise. She had a small penetrating eye, and what is called in French an agreeable smile. She wore an old pink cashmere dressing-gown, covered with white embroideries, and, like the figure in my momentary vision, she was holding it together in front with a bare and rounded arm and a plump and deeply dimpled hand.
"It is only to spick about my cafe," she said to Miss Spencer, with her agreeable smile. "I should like it served in the garden under the leetle tree."
The young man behind her had now stepped into the room, and he also stood looking at me. He was a pretty-faced little fellow, with an air of provincial foppishness,—a tiny Adonis of Grimwinter. He had a small pointed nose, a small pointed chin, and, as I observed, the most diminutive feet. He looked at me foolishly, with his mouth open.
"You shall have your coffee," said Miss Spencer, who had a faint red spot in each of her cheeks.
"It is well!" said the lady in the dressing-gown. "Find your bouk," she added, turning to the young man.
He gazed vaguely round the room. "My grammar, d 'ye mean?" he asked, with a helpless intonation.
But the large lady was inspecting me, curiously, and gathering in her dressing-gown with her white arm.
"Find your bouk, my friend," she repeated.
"My poetry, d 'ye mean?" said the young man, also staring at me again.
"Never mind your bouk," said his companion. "To-day we will talk. We will make some conversation. But we must not interrupt. Come;" and she turned away. "Under the leetle tree," she added, for the benefit of Miss Spencer.
Then she gave me a sort of salutation, and a "Monsieur!" with which she swept away again, followed by the young man.
Caroline Spencer stood there with her eyes fixed upon the ground.
"Who is that?" I asked.
"The Countess, my cousin."
"And who is the young man?"
"Her pupil, Mr. Mixter."
This description of the relation between the two persons who had just left the room made me break into a little laugh. Miss Spencer looked at me gravely.
"She gives French lessons; she has lost her fortune."
"I see," I said. "She is determined to be a burden to no one. That is very proper."
Miss Spencer looked down on the ground again, "I must go and get the coffee," she said.
"Has the lady many pupils?" I asked.
"She has only Mr. Mixter. She gives all her time to him."
At this I could not laugh, though I smelt provocation; Miss Spencer was too grave. "He pays very well," she presently added, with simplicity. "He is very rich. He is very kind. He takes the Countess to drive." And she was turning away.
"You are going for the Countess's coffee?" I said.
"If you will excuse me a few moments."
"Is there no one else to do it?"
She looked at me with the softest serenity. "I keep no servants."
"Can she not wait upon herself?"
"She is not used to that."
"I see," said I, as gently as possible. "But before you go, tell me this: who is this lady?"
"I told you about her before—that day. She is the wife of my cousin, whom you saw."
"The lady who was disowned by her family in consequence of her marriage?"
"Yes; they have never seen her again. They have cast her off."
"And where is her husband?"
"He is dead."
"And where is your money?"
The poor girl flinched; there was something too consistent in my questions. "I don't know," she said wearily.
But I continued a moment. "On her husband's death this lady came over here?"
"Yes, she arrived one day."
"How long ago?"
"She has been here ever since?"
"How does she like it?"
"Not at all."
"And how do you like it?"
Miss Spencer laid her face in her two hands an instant, as she had done ten minutes before.
Then, quickly, she went to get the Countess's coffee.
I remained alone in the little parlor; I wanted to see more, to learn more. At the end of five minutes the young man whom Miss Spencer had described as the Countess's pupil came in. He stood looking at me for a moment with parted lips. I saw he was a very rudimentary young man.
"She wants to know if you won't come out there," he observed at last.
"Who wants to know?"
"The Countess. That French lady."
"She has asked you to bring me?"
"Yes, sir," said the young man feebly, looking at my six feet of stature.
I went out with him, and we found the Countess sitting under one of the little quince-trees in front of the house. She was drawing a needle through the piece of embroidery which she had taken from the small table. She pointed graciously to the chair beside her, and I seated myself. Mr. Mixter glanced about him, and then sat down in the grass at her feet. He gazed upward, looking with parted lips from the Countess to me. "I am sure you speak French," said the Countess, fixing her brilliant little eyes upon me.
"I do, madam, after a fashion," I answered in the lady's own tongue.
"Voila!" she cried most expressively. "I knew it so soon as I looked at you. You have been in my poor dear country."
"A long time."
"You know Paris?"
"Thoroughly, madam." And with a certain conscious purpose I let my eyes meet her own.
She presently, hereupon, moved her own and glanced down at Mr. Mixter "What are we talking about?" she demanded of her attentive pupil.
He pulled his knees up, plucked at the grass with his hand, stared, blushed a little. "You are talking French," said Mr. Mixter.
"La belle decouverte!" said the Countess. "Here are ten months," she explained to me, "that I am giving him lessons. Don't put yourself out not to say he's an idiot; he won't understand you."
"I hope your other pupils are more gratifying," I remarked.
"I have no others. They don't know what French is in this place; they don't want to know. You may therefore imagine the pleasure it is to me to meet a person who speaks it like yourself." I replied that my own pleasure was not less; and she went on drawing her stitches through her embroidery, with her little finger curled out. Every few moments she put her eyes close to her work, nearsightedly. I thought her a very disagreeable person; she was coarse, affected, dishonest, and no more a countess than I was a caliph. "Talk to me of Paris," she went on. "The very name of it gives me an emotion! How long since you were there?"
"Two months ago."
"Happy man! Tell me something about it What were they doing? Oh, for an hour of the boulevard!"
"They were doing about what they are always doing,—amusing themselves a good deal."
"At the theatres, eh?" sighed the Countess. "At the cafes-concerts, at the little tables in front of the doors? Quelle existence! You know I am a Parisienne, monsieur," she added, "to my fingertips."
"Miss Spencer was mistaken, then," I ventured to rejoin, "in telling me that you are a Provencale."
She stared a moment, then she put her nose to her embroidery, which had a dingy, desultory aspect. "Ah, I am a Provencale by birth; but I am a Parisienne by—inclination."
"And by experience, I suppose?" I said.
She questioned me a moment with her hard little eyes. "Oh, experience! I could talk of experience if I wished. I never expected, for example, that experience had this in store for me." And she pointed with her bare elbow, and with a jerk of her head, at everything that surrounded her,—at the little white house, the quince-tree, the rickety paling, even at Mr. Mixter.
"You are in exile!" I said, smiling.
"You may imagine what it is! These two years that I have been here I have passed hours—hours! One gets used to things, and sometimes I think I have got used to this. But there are some things that are always beginning over again. For example, my coffee."
"Do you always have coffee at this hour?" I inquired.
She tossed back her head and measured me.
"At what hour would you prefer me to have it? I must have my little cup after breakfast."
"Ah, you breakfast at this hour?"
"At midday—comme cela se fait. Here they breakfast at a quarter past seven! That 'quarter past' is charming!"
"But you were telling me about your coffee? I observed sympathetically.
"My cousine can't believe in it; she can't understand it. She's an excellent girl; but that little cup of black coffee, with a drop of cognac, served at this hour,—they exceed her comprehension. So I have to break the ice every day, and it takes the coffee the time you see to arrive. And when it arrives, monsieur! If I don't offer you any of it you must not take it ill. It will be because I know you have drunk it on the boulevard."
I resented extremely this scornful treatment of poor Caroline Spencer's humble hospitality; but I said nothing, in order to say nothing uncivil. I only looked on Mr. Mixter, who had clasped his arms round his knees and was watching my companion's demonstrative graces in solemn fascination. She presently saw that I was observing him; she glanced at me with a little bold explanatory smile. "You know, he adores me," she murmured, putting her nose into her tapestry again. I expressed the promptest credence, and she went on. "He dreams of becoming my lover! Yes, it's his dream. He has read a French novel; it took him six months. But ever since that he has thought himself the hero, and me the heroine!"
Mr. Mixter had evidently not an idea that he was being talked about; he was too preoccupied with the ecstasy of contemplation. At this moment Caroline Spencer came out of the house, bearing a coffee-pot on a little tray. I noticed that on her way from the door to the table she gave me a single quick, vaguely appealing glance. I wondered what it signified; I felt that it signified a sort of half-frightened longing to know what, as a man of the world who had been in France, I thought of the Countess. It made me extremely uncomfortable. I could not tell her that the Countess was very possibly the runaway wife of a little hair-dresser. I tried suddenly, on the contrary, to show a high consideration for her. But I got up; I could n't stay longer. It vexed me to see Caroline Spencer standing there like a waiting-maid.
"You expect to remain some time at Grimwinter?" I said to the Countess.
She gave a terrible shrug.
"Who knows? Perhaps for years. When one is in misery!—Chere belle" she added, turning to Miss Spencer, "you have forgotten the cognac!"
I detained Caroline Spencer as, after looking a moment in silence at the little table, she was turning away to procure this missing delicacy. I silently gave her my hand in farewell. She looked very tired, but there was a strange hint of prospective patience in her severely mild little face. I thought she was rather glad I was going. Mr. Mixter had risen to his feet and was pouring out the Countess's coffee. As I went back past the Baptist church I reflected that poor Miss Spencer had been right in her presentiment that she should still see something of that dear old Europe.